Precausal Reason

English summary from

The conception of the world in maturity and in infancy

pp. 165-167 in:
Perussia F. – La ragione precausale: Rappresentazioni del mondo nella maturità e nell’infanzia. Milano: Psicotecnica Amazon, 1983.


The research represents a criticaI approach to Jean Piaget’s theories on the conception of the world (1926) and psysical causality (1927), as developed in children from precausal thinking, which is characterized by realism, animism and artificialism, to causaI thinking. From a review (Perussia 1983) of nearly seventy recent studies that folIowed the work of Laurendeau and Pinard in 1962, it appears that the matter of precausal thinking is still controversial, i.e., though most researchers in this field agree that children have precausal thinking in the Piagetian sense, the data and their interpretation differ depending on the author.

In this book I compare Piaget’s protocols with the writings of many classical scientists, from ancient times to the 20th century, and with the cosmologies and meteorologies of a few “primitive” (but adult and often contemporary) thinkers. The similitarities noted between adult and infantile thinking in numerous adult ancient or modern philosophers and/or physicists serve to question Piaget’s notion of infantile or “precausal” thinking as structuralIy divergent from adult or “causaI” thinking. For example, the infantile convinction that thought is equivalent to silent speech is shared by J. B. Watson. The child’s belief that “visual rays” emanating from the eyes account for sight was a part of almost all optical science (Empedocles, Hipparchus, Bemard Of Tours, Della Porta), at least until the Renaissance. The notion that an object is nearly identical to its name pervades not only classical texts (e.g., Plato, the Bible), but also the contemporary theory of natural signs (e.g., Kohler). Democritus, Cicero, Freud and others believed, as do children, that dreams originate in the external world in a realistic sense, i.e., a dream comes from some other place, it is an effect of daily experience, and so on. The child’s belief that thinking and air, or better pneuma, are actually the same thing is shared by Antipater, Zeno, Diogenes of Apollonia. The classification of objects as alive or not alive, and with and without force, and the criteria used by children for such distinctions, are also present (in even more “animistic” ways) in the works of ‘primitive’ physicists, Democritus, Thales, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Leonardo, Peter Abelard, and Nicola Cusano, and throughout the entire history of the concept of force. The conception of the world as a continuous transformation of a few basic elements, mainly air but also water, fire and earth, is rendered with the same child-like words in the works of Anaximenes, Aristotle, Pseudo Bede, Telesio, and others. The primitive cosmogonies of Empedocles, and Honorius of Autun, for example, reflect the child-like notion that the sky is solid and stays up because it moves rapidly. The infantile confusion between wind and the objects it seems to move, such as clouds, waves, and stars, is also found in, for example, Aristotle, Alexander Neckam, Leonardo and others. The infantile conviction that wind derives from dust is shared by Epicurus and Aristotle. Infantile concepts of the lunar and solar phases are found in Empedocles, Xenophon, Heraclitus and notions of night are found in primitive meteorologies and in the works of Parmenides, Pythagoras, Alan of Lille, and others. Children’s explanations of thunder, lightning and rain are common in primitive rneteorologies, and in the physical philosophies of Leucippus, Anaxagoras and Lucretius. Artificialistic thinking that God manufactured the different aspects of the world in the same way that man produces tools pervades many religions (see the Bible) and also many layman thinkings (e.g., Stoicism). Radically artificialistic concepts about wind, rain, and clouds are found in the primi tive physics of Epicurus, Aristotle and Seneca. Finally, a series of peculiar cases in which singular “precausal” children’s explanations coincide with singular affirmations of scientists are presented.

From the data presented. I offer the reader some conclusions and some hypotheses for future research. The Piagetian distinction between causaI and precausal thinking becomes blurred, as adults of very different eras and children explain phenomena in a remarkably similar fashion. Thus, the Piagetian distinction between adult and infantile thinking must be reevaluated and the possibility of a greater continuity between adult and infantile thinking than expected must be considered. Perhaps “causaI” thinking can be better defined as the learning of natural sciences by a child in school. Many adults reason in the same way that children do, and many children reason as adults. It is therefore probably heuristically useful to consider children as intellectually creative scientist-philosophers who operate outside the framework of academic contemporary science. Successive stages do not necessarily represent progress over previous ones; they might simply be different.





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